The First and Foremost Frontier.
LAST TIME I was discussing time, and how the usage of it, and specifically how the developers of Dark Souls and Skyrim let players manipulate time, reflected a core difference of focus and design philosophy. Letting the player have any modicum of control over the 4th dimension (aside from pausing) is something that’s only occurred in gaming over the last decade. What’s always been far more important though – even during the medium’s earliest entries – is Time’s best friend forever: SPACE.
Of course, when talking about space what probably pops into the mind like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man are all the standard images: starships, lasers, teleportation pads, aliens, wacky robot sidekicks; perhaps even . . . a bovine or three?
That’s the science fiction version of “SPACE“, which is not the “space” I’m referring to. That’s really about Outer Space.
No I’m just referring to plain old space,”the unlimited three-dimensional realm or expanse in which all material objects are present, and where all events occur” (to quote from an online dictionary). Space and Time are, like their counterparts here in the real world, the two most fundamental building blocks upon which the digital worlds of games are created.
Whereas Time is generally left alone in gaming and can be seen to function as you’d expect it to most of the well, time, how Space is used in a game varies wildly. In Tetris (and most puzzle games of its ilk) the space is the board in which you manipulate the pieces. In Pac-Man, it’s the maze haunted by ghosts and the gluttonous soul-eater that hunts them. In the Mario Bros. games, it’s the frankly insane geography of the Mushroom Kingdom that our horny destitute plumber stomps fungi and reptiles in.
The space of the game has to be as thought out as the characters the player of a game controls; it’s why “level designer” and “world builder” are critical jobs in the gaming industry.
The space a game is set in defines it; yet the specific usage of these setting follow few patterns outside of genre traditions. But the setting and core level design aren’t the only things dealing with spatial relations that are important; how the player views this space is just as fundamental. However, this is where at least one pattern can be seen to occur, and it relates to yet another space: the oceanic divide between Eastern and Western developers, and their different focuses on 3rd and 1st person perspective games.
The Long and the Short(hand) of it: Where You Put The Camera Changes the Space.
For those somehow not aware, perhaps because they’re new to gaming, or because they are as inattentive Clark Kent’s optometrist, you can roughly divide game development between East (usually referring to Japanese developers) and West (usually referring to the US, but also European studios). Though there are about a billion differences you could look at, I want to look at one in particular as it relates to a key difference between Dark Souls and Skyrim: the lack of First Person Shooters from Eastern Studios.
Now, this is something that has been covered before by other folks on the internet, so I’m not going to delve fully. The smart folks in the linked video make an argument that the primary difference between Eastern and Western developers and the proclivity to make games that focus on guns, and how these guns are used, is probably based on cultural traditions related to combat and warfare. It’s a solid argument that’s well explained, and I agree with a lot of what they present.
However, I also think you can take it a step further, because they more or less focus on the “S” of “FPS”, the shooting, and I think looking at the “FP” can be just as enlightening.
You might not actively think about it, but the primary viewpoint a player experiences a game world through impacts HOW a game can be played; in a manner similar to how your primary language impacts the way you think. Using a first person perspective makes certain things, like investigating small spaces in detail, incredibly simple to accomplish. It may also have a small advantage in creating a bond between the player and their avatar, as you use the same perspective you actually do in real life. I’d claim that one of the great strengths of using the 1st Person perspective in a game is the sense of naturalism it creates. You inhabit the body of a character and literally view a world through their eyes, what could be more personal than that?
The interesting thing about the first person perspective though, is that as it was used over and over (again primarily by Western developers in the FPS) is that it developed a . . . shorthand of sorts. Certain things that might be a concern when viewed from a 3rd Person perspective are left out of a game.
Mostly, these are little things. For instance in most FPSs when your character interacts with an object on a wall, say a light switch, you won’t see the character’s hand pop into view to physically touch the switch. The switch will just flip from one state to another as if you HAD done such a thing, even though the game never showed such an action occurring.
This isn’t limited to just wall mounted switches either, picking up objects off the floor, opening doors, changing clothes, grabbing ledges and climbing up them and climbing in general (especially up ladders), all of these are interactions with the game world that in most FPSs will have no animation associated with them that the player will ever actually see. Heck, it’s a rare thing to even see your character’s feet in an FPS, even though all of them allow to look at where your feet should be. These lacking little things, this shorthand, can create the sense that the protagonists of games that use the viewpoint are all these floating sets of psychic hands when not in a cutscene.
The beauty of this shorthand though, is that it works. Like stenography in the written language, it allows for brevity. The players get (quite intuitively) that these actions are taking place, and don’t need to see all of these details; even including them would slow the proceedings of the game down, and this is one of the reasons that an FPS is perfectly suited for fast paced, twitch gameplay.
I mean, who really wants to see all of the realistic physical reactions to what your character is doing to the game world? Most of these little things don’t matter, and including them can bog a game down with awkward pauses and movements that don’t serve a purpose other than to be acutely detailed because geeks like me want “MOAR REALISTIC PLZ”, even if it isn’t as fun.
The Devil’s in the Details but the View is Myopic.
Except, there is one key type of gaming where this FPS shorthand actively gets in the way of the experience: melee combat.
Seriously, try naming five games, set in the 1st person perspective, where melee combat actually feels like it should. Go ahead, try. You probably have a couple, but I’m guessing you don’t have five, which is insane considering there are hundreds, if not thousands of games that use the 1st person perspective as their primary camera view.
I can think of three: Zenoclash, the aforementioned Mirror’s Edge (somewhat), and maybe the Thief series. But only one of those games, Zenoclash, actively tried to make melee combat the focus of the game. In the other two, the focus was either on movement or stealth – guess which one is which?
There may be a few other examples (comment below to add the ones you thought of!) but if we’re being honest, there are VERY few other examples. Why?
If there is a major limitation of the FPS, it’s that while it makes viewing the space of a game world feel quite natural, the shorthanded nature of the perspective usually causes the small details in the immediate vicinity of the player to get ignored. Which is fine in the case of using guns or other ranged weaponry as the focus should be on accurately shooting targets from a hundred meters away.
But I believe it’s the attention to these tiny details at the short range that fundamentally make a melee combat experience good or bad.
Look at the development of any major fighting game, say Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 – by the way, totally called it – and you’ll see that both the designers and the fans put an incredible emphasis on the smallest aspects (especially when it comes to fan reactions to balance updates). If a character’s punch takes four frames of animation, or six. If the stun on blocked attack lasts a quarter of a second, or half a second. In the grand ballet of fleet-footed fisticuffs that is a brawl, these little things make or break a character, and heck, the entirety of a game. In the flow of a fight, a half second difference between stun duration in characters can determine who wins consistently and who becomes the next Dan Hibiki.
A complete non sequiter: you know who makes the most fighting games worth mentioning?
Japan. An Eastern developer.
You know what view is used for fighting games?
A 3rd Person view. Usually 2D, sometimes in 3D, but almost always (because Bushido Blade got experimental with this) it’s in 3rd Person.
Tying the point together.
Bethesda, the folks who made Skyrim followed in the traditions of the previous entries in the Elder Scrolls franchise: they designed the entire game with the 1st Person Perspective as the primary view of the player, even though the game can be freely switched to a 3rd Person view at any time. This means that ranged combat, most likely found when playing as a wizard, works pretty darn well.
However, Skyrim is a game that relies on FPS Shorthand heavily. When you open doors or pick up a book these actions work as if you were using invisible magic, well before you learn the telekinesis spell that is the actual equivalent of it in game. It also means that when you swing your sword, it acts less like an actual blade, and more like a gun in any other FPS: you are shooting an invisible damage line at the spot you’re swinging at, and the animation of the swing is an illusion to sell the effect. The sword itself does not take up real space (unless you drop it).
This is very easily seen if you fight multiple enemies who group close together and swing a blade. You can actually see it go through both of them at times, yet it will only do damage to one of them; the one you’re aiming at. You can also see it when you’re next to a wall: the sword will slice through the wall during the swing to hit the enemy regardless of the fact that it just passed through brick and mortar like Kitty Pryde desperately in need of a bathroom break. Heck, unless you aim directly at a wall, your weapon won’t even produce a little hit “spark” or produce a reaction of any kind! Even when you do this, the reaction is simply graphical, and has no effect on the combat flow, like a bouncing back that causes your character to attempt to regain their footing.
When you look at Dark Souls however, you can notice the EXACT OPPOSITE REACTION. Differing weapons in Dark Souls have different types of strikes, and if you try fighting an enemy in a narrow corridor with a weapon that uses a lot of horizontal swings (say a scimitar), you’ll quickly find that your blade will bounce off the walls and leave you open to counterattacks by enemies, because when you swing your sword in this game it actually, you know, takes up real space. When you miss a strike your character takes a moment to get their balance back, and this sells the idea that your weapons have some weight to them.
I know that this seems like a minor point, but it’s actually quite indicative of a primary difference in the two games, at least when it comes to melee combat. In Skyrim, as long as you have enough health (and or potions), you can wade into a fight without care and swing your axe with reckless abandon like a kid loaded on candy and with access to a Nerf bat, and you’ll probably manage to survive. It simply careless and imprecise overall.
In Dark Souls every single aggressive action you take in a fight has an obvious reaction, even if it’s simply increased delay between taking other actions or excess stamina drain. Combined with the high damage output of enemies, even minor battles become tense duels where the tiny mistakes you make matter, thus making the player try their best to not make them. To play carefully and with concern, you know, like in an actual fight.
My theory is that this difference stems primarily from the fact that the makers of Dark Souls knew the player would always be able to see their character, and thus had to think of exactly how each of these actions would end up getting viewed. They wanted to make sure the player could intuitively grasp what their actions accomplished, and did this by paying attention to all sorts of little details, especially in animation timing. From interviews it’s obvious that Todd Howard at least, if not most of the folks at Bethesda, didn’t think that many players would use a 3rd Person view in Skyrim, and so their lack of care about what things could look like from outside your avatar’s eyes and over-reliance on FPS shorthand makes a certain degree of sense, even though it’s these little details that become very important in one of the primary scenarios a player will encounter in their game.
Of course, there are plenty of other factors that matter when talking spatial relationships and combat. With 3rd Person cameras, you naturally have a greater spatial awareness of your surroundings, which is helpful when dealing with multiple foes or dangerous terrain. Yet, 3rd Person combat often ends up causing target selection to become more imprecise, so a lock-on system becomes almost mandatory (which Dark Souls uses), but this can induce a sense that the maximum range of the target locking is arbitrary and can negatively impact missile combat, which is exactly a problem with this system in Dark Souls. So it’s not like Skyrim doesn’t excel in something, because it does, as long as you’re playing an archer or wizard (though the laborious spell switching isn’t good).
Also, even though they are paying a lot of attention to small details in Dark Souls, they still don’t make everything 100% realistic and use quite a few “animation shorthand” tricks of their own to make everything flow smoothly. Which is fine since the attention to detail on the combat is already there, and I don’t think anyone wants every game to actually be true to life, especially when we’re talking about the fantasy genre.
So why make this point?
Well, because it seems to me that the solution to making 1st Person melee combat better in all future games is actually quite simple: make it work in 3rd Person before switching the camera over. If Bethesda had designed their melee system from the outside-in, rather than the inside-out, then it’s my belief that they could have considered all these little things, and increased the priority on making them look better and it would have had an overall beneficial impact on the game as a whole. Especially since most of the improvements made to the player character’s interactions with the physical world would carry over to all of the other NPCS, as Skyrim carries over all animations and rules for every humanoid character in the game. This might be something they want to think about for the future considering their intent seems to be about making their games as immersive and naturalistic as possible.
Damn, this went on long, and I didn’t even get to cover the other aspects of spatial relationships I wanted to! I’ll debate whether adding to this or not, as I really wanted to get into the detail of the different philosophies at play about how each game considers the player explore their worlds.
Hmmm. Another article perhaps? Yeah, why not?
NEXT TIME – I continue delving into the reaches of the infinite space that is well, space!
As one of the unfortunate few born with three first names, Adam endured years of taunting on the mean streets of Los Angeles in order to become the cynical malcontent he is today. A gamer since the age of four, he has attempted to remain diverse in his awareness of the arts, and remain active in current theater, film, literary and musical trends when not otherwise writing or acting himself. He now offers his knowledge in these areas up to the “California Literary Review,” who still haven’t decided what exactly they want to do with him yet. He prefers to be disagreed with in a traditional “Missile Command” high score contest, and can be challenged this way via his Xbox LIVE Gamertag of AtomGone, and if you want to “follow” him on twitter, look for Adam Robert Thomas